ROSH HASHANAH DAY #1
RABBI GERALD C SKOLNIK
Many of you, I’m sure, have seen any one of a number of recent newspaper articles describing a unique kind of rabbinic soul-searching that’s been going on this year. Do you speak about the election, and run all of the attendant risks, or do you dutifully honor the transcendent charge of the High Holidays and avoid what’s going on completely?
To get quickly to the point, I don’t really think I/we can afford to avoid what’s going on, because the stakes for ourselves and our country are unprecedented in their scope and magnitude. But that will be tomorrow, not today, because I also completely believe that if we are to be faithful to the imperative of introspection and soul-searching that these High Holidays demand of us, then before we allow any external concerns into this sacred space and time, we must pause and reflect on what ultimately matters- not the state of the world, but rather the state of our souls. Today is Yom Harat Olam– the day on which we celebrate the birthday of the world. It behooves us to be mindful of the words of our liturgy– Unetane Tokef K’dushat Hayom! Let us pay all appropriate respect to the sanctity of this day, ki hu norah v’ayom, for it is truly awesome.
Towards that end, I want to focus in this morning on a critically important dynamic of T’shuvah– accepting the possibility that one’s ways may not be perfect, or even correct. And to do that, I have to take you back in Jewish history some two thousand years, to the time of the destruction of the Second Temple and its immediate aftermath.
Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans, and the situation was extremely desperate. A famous Talmudic passage in Tractate Gittin of the Babylonian Talmud depicts a story line that could be straight out of a Hollywood action adventure. The Jewish leadership of the city was deeply divided as to what the best strategy was for dealing with the Romans. Some zealots, whom the Talmud refers to as biryonim, wanted to fight the Romans to the end, citing their faith in God and believing in their ability to emerge victorious. Most of us know this group because they’re the ones who fled to Masada when the Temple was burnt, so as to continue their resistance there. The more practically minded among the leaders, who were also religiously passionate but had a more realistic view of the situation, advocated cutting the best possible deal with the Romans, so that the Jewish people would survive the catastrophe. In an effort to get their fellow Jews to fight, the Zealots burned the Jewish storehouses of wheat and barley, throwing the city into famine. The Jews who were left in Jerusalem, already under siege, were now literally starving to death.
Those of you familiar with this story will know that the hero who emerges is the great Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose nephew Abba Sikra was one of the leaders of the Biryonim. Yochanan implores him to see the reality for what it is, but Abba Sikra replies that if he cooperates with him, the Biryonim will only come and kill him immediately. What Abba Sikra does do, though, is find a way to smuggle Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem, in a coffin much less, to an urgent, clandestine meeting with the Roman general Vespasian. As you might imagine, their meeting is fraught with tension, and the first impulse of Vespasian is the kill Rabban Yochanan. Ultimately, however, he is impressed with Yochanan’s courage and wisdom, and offers Yochanan to make a request, that he promises to grant.
About fifty or so years ago, the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, z”l, described Rabban Yochanan as facing an impossible choice. If he asked for Jerusalem and the Temple and Vespasian flat out refused, he would have gained nothing, and lost a precious opportunity for some kind of national restoration. If, however, he asked for Yavneh and its sages, where the greatest scholars of Torah were to be found, far from Jerusalem, he would insure some kind of Jewish future, but would also be giving up on the holy city that is so central to the Jewish people, and its collective psyche. There was no chance to consult, no one to share this awesome responsibility with him, and absolutely no time to waste.
It was then that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai uttered the four words that would change the course of Jewish history forever: Ten li Yavneh va’hakhameha! Give me Yavneh and her scholars! With the utterance of those words, Yochanan began the inexorable transformation of Judaism from a sacrificial cult centered in Jerusalem to a prayer and study tradition that could be practiced anywhere, even in exile… a total transformation. From my perspective as a student of Judaism and Jewish history, there is no greater, more significant, or, quite frankly, more daring action taken by any single person or institution in our long history.
Fast forward just a few short years, and a companion Talmudic passage from the Babylonian Talmud, this one in Tractate B’rakhot, has Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai mortally ill, on his death bed, surrounded by his students. When he saw them, he began to weep. His students are uncomprehending, because he is Yochanan ben Zakkai, arguably the greatest religious leader of his time. “Light of Israel,” they say to him, why do you weep? To which he replies as follows…
Were I being led before a melekh bassar vadam, a king of flesh and blood who is a mere mortal, even if he became angry with me and saw fit to punish me, his anger would not be forever. I might even be able to bribe him, or talk him out of his intended punishment. And I would still cry. But now that I am soon to be brought before the King of Kings, the Kadosh Barukh Hu who is eternal and unchanging, if he imprisons me, or otherwise punishes me, it is forever, and I cannot bribe or appease him. There are only two roads before me, one leading to Gan Eden, to heaven, and the other to Gehinom, to hell, and I don’t know which one I’m being led to. How can I not cry?
One doesn’t have to be Freud to deduce that there might have been something else going on there that would have at least partly explained Rabban Yochanan’s tears. After all, if he was worried about going to heaven, it’s looking pretty bad for the rest of us, isn’t it!
The Talmud itself suggests, and Rav Soloveitchik later amplifies the idea, that Rabban Yochanan’s tears were rooted in guilt and doubt. Some of the rabbis of his generation and later, most notably the great Rabbi Akiva, thought that he had sold out for too little, and not tried hard enough to save Jerusalem. After all, Vespasian had said that he would grant his request… who was Rabbi Yochanan to unilaterally decide to forfeit Jerusalem, whose Temple was the jewel in the crown of ancient Judaism? He should have rolled the dice and gone big, they would say. Because of his “settling” for Yavneh, Jerusalem was laid to waste.
I heard a recounting of this epic story recently by Dr. Ruth Calderon, the Israeli Professor of Talmud who, to her great surprise, wound up serving briefly as a member of the Israeli Knesset when her political party, Yesh Atid, did better than expected in general elections. Dr. Calderon presented this study to a gathering of rabbis in Washington just a few short weeks ago sponsored by AIPAC, in advance of the High Holidays. Her intention in teaching it was to showcase her own personal belief that even great political leaders have doubts, because there is no such thing as the absolute right decision when the alternatives are so stark, and so less than perfect. To ask for Jerusalem and the Temple was to risk total loss. To ask for Yavneh was, in essence, to abandon Jerusalem- an almost unthinkable thought. So Rabban Yochanan was destined to live the rest of his life, which we can now look at as heroic, plagued with guilt that maybe the choice he made was not the right one.
To Ruth Calderon, working within the Israeli political system and its Prime Minister who rarely seems to suffer from too much doubt, her lecture was nothing less than a polemic, and a rather startling and refreshing one to hear at an AIPAC event. But as I heard her words and considered their import, I took her meta- message in an entirely different way– in a spiritual context, and not a political one.
The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides articulated the fundamental agenda of t’shuvah as being three-fold. The first imperative is what he called hakkarat hahet- recognizing that we’ve sinned, and what our sin was. The second is actually to do a heartfelt viddui, a confessional, in which we verbally engage in asking both God and our fellow man and woman for forgiveness. The third component is for us to be presented with the opportunity to commit exactly the same sin over again, and to refrain from doing so because we’ve engaged in genuine t’shuvah and recognize the error of our old ways.
For many of us, the greatest impediment to our genuine t’shuvah is our chronic inability to get past the first step, because we’re simply not honest enough or courageous enough to confront the possibility that we might have made mistakes along the way- that we’re not perfect. In order to do t’shuvah, you have to accept the idea that you just might be wrong sometimes. You have to have enough insight into yourself and your actions to acknowledge that you’re less than a walking model of perfection, less that totally reliable, less than always right. You can’t atone for a sin that you don’t know you’ve committed, or won’t admit to yourself you might have committed. You can never get to step two unless you master step one.
Who would have even considered the possibility that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, universally acknowledged as the man most responsible for facilitating the creation of rabbinic Judaism and insuring the future for a religion and community under siege, a heroic figure in every way, would even harbor a scintilla of doubt about the choice he had made? Far lesser leaders than he have allowed themselves to become what we sometimes refer to as “legends in their own minds,” and Rabbi Yochanan would certainly have been entitled.
But what the Talmud alluded to, Rabbi Soloveitchik later pointed out, and Ruth Calderon affirmed, is that only zealots whose field of vision is narrow and self-centered allow themselves to believe that their way is the only way. And if you accept that, then it follows that you must also accept the responsibility for the path you have chosen, whether or not it ultimately turns out to have been the proper one.
The ultimate measure of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s greatness was that, even having made a daring and ultimately successful choice, acknowledged and was able to live with that doubt. He carried with him, even to his very deathbed, the terrifying possibility that the single greatest decision of his life might have been a mistake. With the perspective of two thousand years of hindsight, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that his decision to save Yavneh was anything but a mistake. It saved Judaism, and because of his decision we are here today. But had he not been able to cry on his deathbed, he would have been a far lesser figure in a more global sense, as a human being.
Unetaneh tokef k’dushat hayom! Let us all pay due respect to the transcendent sanctity of this day, for it is truly norah v’ayyom– awesome. Thousands of years later, Rabban Yochanan’s audacious courage in the face of an almost inhumanly difficult choice makes him one of the great figures of Jewish history. But his ultimate humility before God- the courage to cry tears of doubt as he prepares to meet his maker- is what singles him out even more. May the lesson of his life, and death, inspire us, all these years later, to lead lives characterized by both courage and humility, and may we all find the kind of cleansing redemption that will invest our lives with ultimate meaning. Not only we, but the troubled world in which we live, can only be the better for it.